Have you ever heard of music theory? All the cool cats and kiddies are doing it. I just finished watching a documentary about music. Humans in every culture have some form of music, making it a fundamental human characteristic. The way music is performed and interpreted does vary from culture to culture but it is still music. Music itself is so complex only humans can comprehend every aspect of it. Parrots and other birds can mimic tones and maintain a beat but they can’t transpose keys. Music also has a huge impact on our mood. Hollywood uses it every time they make a movie. They use to evoke emotional responses from their audiences. Athletes use it to get ready to perform in sports. Speech therapists use it to help patients talk. A famous example of this is King George VI and his famous speech. How much can music help us? Well, there’s an entire branch of medicine that relates to this. In this post I want to look at some of the options available for the application of music therapy in Alzheimer’s and dementia patients.  First, let’s look at what music therapy is.

What is Music Therapy?

According to musictherapy.org “Music Therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.

Music Therapy is an established health profession in which music is used within a therapeutic relationship to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals. After assessing the strengths and needs of each client, the qualified music therapist provides the indicated treatment including creating, singing, moving to, and/or listening to music. Through musical involvement in the therapeutic context, clients’ abilities are strengthened and transferred to other areas of their lives. Music therapy also provides avenues for communication that can be helpful to those who find it difficult to express themselves in words. Research in music therapy supports its effectiveness in many areas such as: overall physical rehabilitation and facilitating movement, increasing people’s motivation to become engaged in their treatment, providing emotional support for clients and their families, and providing an outlet for expression of feelings.” The next question is…

Can music therapy help patients with dementia?

Many studies have been conducted with this exact question in mind. In order to process music our brains use a neural network known as the salience network. A study conducted in 2018 by the University of Utah Health used functional MRI (fMRI) to map the brain. The fMRI was used to scan 17 dementia patients to analyze regions of the brain that were activated when listening to eight 20-second clips of music compared to silence.  

The researchers found in all participants that whole regions of the brain communicated with each other when they listened to music. Specifically, the visual, salience and executive networks and the cerebellar and corticocerebellar networks performed with higher functional connectivity with music than without. 

“This is objective evidence from brain imaging that shows personally meaningful music is an alternative route for communicating with patients who have Alzheimer’s disease,” said senior author Norman Foster, MD, director of the Center for Alzheimer’s Care at the University of Utah Health, in a prepared statement. “Language and visual memory pathways are damaged early as the disease progresses, but personalized music programs can activate the brain, especially for patients who are losing contact with their environment.” 

So how does it work?

When we listen to music different parts of our brain are activated. In fact, if the human brain’s electrical activity is tracked while we listen to music, our brains light up like fireworks. We must connect; timing, pitch, timbre, emotion, etc. In order to connect all these pieces together our brain makes new connections when not available and strengthens existing connections that are currently present. Also both sides of the brain are activated. Think of it like a workout for you brain. When you learn to play music even more neurons are established.

Is music a cure for Alzheimer and dementia?

While it is not a cure, it can help manage some of the symptoms. In some cases it can actually reverse some of the damage done. We have only scratched the surface on what music can do in the medical field. I’m excited to see what the future holds.